The Promise of American Life eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 523 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.
Whig might have worked out the logic of the national idea with as much power and consistency as Calhoun worked out the logic of his sectional idea.  That no Whig rose to the occasion is an indication that in sacrificing their ideas they were sacrificing also their personal integrity.  Intellectual insincerity and irresponsibility was in the case of the Democrats the outcome of their lives and their point of view; but on the part of the Whigs it was equivalent to sheer self-prostitution.  Jefferson’s work had been done only too well.  The country had become so entirely possessed by a system of individual aggrandizement, national drift, and mental torpor that the men who for their own moral and intellectual welfare should have opposed it, were reduced to the position of hangers-on; and the dangers of the situation were most strikingly revealed by the attitude which contemporary statesmen assumed towards the critical national problem of the period,—­the problem of the existence of legalized slavery in a democratic state.

CHAPTER IV

I

SLAVERY AND AMERICAN NATIONALITY

Both the Whig and the Democratic parties betrayed the insufficiency of their ideas by their behavior towards the problem of slavery.  Hitherto I have refrained from comment on the effect which the institution of slavery was coming to have upon American politics because the increasing importance of slavery, and of the resulting anti-slavery agitation, demand for the purpose of this book special consideration.  Such a consideration must now be undertaken.  The bitter personal and partisan controversies of the Whigs and the Democrats were terminated by the appearance of a radical and a perilous issue; and in the settlement of this question the principles of both of these parties, in the manner in which they had been applied, were of no vital assistance.

The issue was created by the legal existence in the United States of an essentially undemocratic institution.  The United States was a democracy, and however much or little this phrase means, it certainly excludes any ownership of one man by another.  Yet this was just what the Constitution sanctioned.  Its makers had been confronted by the legal existence of slavery in nearly all of the constituent states; and a refusal to recognize the institution would have resulted in the failure of the whole scheme of Constitutional legislation.  Consequently they did not seek to forbid negro servitude; and inasmuch as it seemed at that time to be on the road to extinction through the action of natural causes, the makers of the Constitution had a good excuse for refusing to sacrifice their whole project to the abolition of slavery, and in throwing thereby upon the future the burden of dealing with it in some more radical and consistent way.  Later, however, it came to pass that slavery, instead of being gradually extinguished by economic causes,

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